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What’s wrong with Kentucky?: Why the Wildcats have struggled in recent weeks

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Kentucky has reached a crossroads of their season.

They steamrolled everyone in their path for the first month of the year. Losses at home to UCLA and at Louisville were explainable, particularly when there was a win over North Carolina in Las Vegas between them, and forgettable once SEC play started and the Wildcats were doing things like beating Texas A&M by 42 points.

But over the course of the last three weeks, the high-octane Wildcats have looked like a mustang on the highway being driven with the emergency brake on. As Drew Franklin of Kentucky Sports Radio put it, “Kentucky is a bad basketball team full of talented basketball players.”

“You won’t want to be at that practice tomorrow,” head coach John Calipari said in his postgame interview on ESPN after the Wildcats gave up 58 second half points in a 92-85 win over hapless LSU, the fifth straight game they’ve allowed more than 79 points to their opponent. “If someone wants to quit, they can quit. Because this has got to stop at some point.”

This is a team with as much talent as anyone in the country. This is a team that, at one point, looked like an unstoppable force.

How has it gone so wrong for Kentucky?

LEXINGTON, KY - FEBRUARY 07: Malik Monk #5 of the Kentucky Wildcats defends against Antonio Blakeney #2 of the LSU Tigers in the first half of the game at Rupp Arena on February 7, 2017 in Lexington, Kentucky. Kentucky defeated LSU 92-85. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Malik Monk (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

1. This just isn’t a good defensive team right now: That’s the crux of the issue for this team. They’re just aren’t getting enough stops. They’ve allowed an average of 86.2 points the last five games and, in the last four games, they’ve gifted their opponents an average of 54 points in the second half. They were beat up in the post by Tennessee. They were beaten in transition by Florida. Yante Maten of Georgia lit them up. LSU’s Antonio Blakeney scored 31 points, easily the best game he’s played this season.

“They couldn’t guard us for s***,” said a member of one staff that has faced Kentucky recently. Entering the game against Tennessee, the start of this recent slide, the Wildcats had totaled just 16 possessions of zone all season long. They’ve more than doubled that number in the last five games, with a total of 27 possessions coming against Georgia and Florida. Coach Cal relies as much upon a straight man-to-man defense as anyone, so while that number may not sound all that high in a vacuum, consider that in 2014-15, he played a total of 32 zone possessions.

Early on this season, Kentucky was able to thrive defensively because of the advantage they have physically. They were bigger, stronger and more athletic than anyone that they faced. Malik Monk, for example, didn’t need to understand how to scheme against a pick-and-roll when going up against Hofstra’s guards. The result was that Kentucky could force tough shots and turnovers which, in turn, allowed Kentucky to fire up their transition game, which is as terrifying in its speed, ferocity and directness as any in college hoops.

That’s the key to beating Kentucky.

You don’t let them beat you in transition.

“That was our No. 1 thing: make it a half-court game,” said an SEC coach who has scouted Kentucky this season. There are a couple of ways to go about this, the easiest of which is limiting the number of players that are going to the glass. Instead of sending three or four players to chase an offensive rebound, only send the two bigs. The more bodies behind the ball, the harder it is to get uncontested layups.

The other part of it is to avoid making the mistakes that lead to fast breaks. Don’t commit live-ball turnovers. Don’t take quick shots or forced jumpers. Run offense. Get the ball into the post. Because, unlike some of Kentucky’s best teams, this group will actually make mistakes defensively, which leads me into my next point.

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2. This is what freshmen are supposed to be: One thing that got lost in Kentucky’s frenetic start to the season is that this lineup is as young as any that John Calipari’s ever had. His starting lineup includes four freshmen and a sophomore, and no one in that group is the kind of game-changing defensive presence that we’ve seen amongst Kentucky’s one-and-done players. There is no Karl-Anthony Towns. There is no Anthony Davis. There is no Willie Cauley-Stein or Nerlens Noel.

“They were as talented as they come, ahead of the game defensively as a freshman, and that’s a unique thing,” said an SEC assistant. “Most are ahead of the game offensively as freshmen. You don’t get freshmen that are like seniors as freshmen, and [Towns, Davis, Noel and Cauley-Stein] were killers on defense.”

This team, with all those young guys, they don’t have those guys that are seniors on defense. Isaiah Briscoe is the veteran presence on the floor and he’s a sophomore 50 games into his college career. Derek Willis is a senior, but his ineptitude on the defensive end of the floor is the reason that he can’t crack the starting lineup in a team that’s desperate for perimeter shooting. The same can be said for Mychal Mulder. In theory, Dominique Hawkins would be the ideal player to put in that role, but if he’s on the floor that means that one of Fox, Monk or Briscoe isn’t, and that’s simply not a recipe for consistent success.

The larger point is that freshmen are supposed to make mistakes defensively. That’s what freshmen do. The bigs are learning how to do something other than be really big and play in front of the rim. Guards are learning about a myriad of different ball-screens coverages, their defensive rotations, specific game-plans for specific players. Once you get into the meat of league play, defending isn’t as simple as “just stop your man,” and at this level, an individual’s defensive mistake leads to a breakdown of the entire defense.

Point being, Kentucky doesn’t have bad individual defenders as much as they have young defenders, and young defenders make mistakes.

Which brings us back to the issue of Kentucky’s transition game, because their defensive issues are compounded by the fact that …

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 11: (L-R) Isaiah Briscoe #13, Edrice Adebayo #3 and De'Aaron Fox #0 of the Kentucky Wildcats celebrate on the bench against the Hofstra Pride in the second half of the Brooklyn Hoops Winter Festival at Barclays Center on December 11, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

3. … Kentucky is predictable in the half court: It’s not a secret what they’re trying to do, as their offense is, essentially, one of three things: Fox trying to turn the corner going left, Monk getting run off of screens and hunting jumpshots, or Adebayo getting the ball thrown into him in the post.

All three players are difficult to stop individually, but defenses don’t usually play them individually. Kentucky’s perimeter shooting woes have been a talking point since before the season started, and where those issues manifest themselves is in the inability for Fox to get driving lanes and for Adebayo to get a shot at going 1-on-1 in the post.

Monk can win any game on his own, but ‘hero ball’ can also shoot the Wildcats out of a game.

“We knew how dangerous Monk is in the half court, but you’re going to live with him taking tough shots,” said an SEC assistant. “If he gets 25, making tough shots in the half court, you deal.”

Against Georgia, Monk had 31 of his 37 points after halftime in a come-from-behind win. Three days later, he has his worst game of the season and Kentucky got smoked at Florida.

The other issue?

There seems to be a lack of fight with this group. Talk to people around the conference and you’ll hear things like “don’t really see a lot of leadership” and “they seem disinterested.” Tennessee is totally outclassed in terms of talent but, as one person that scouted the Tennessee’s win said, “Tennessee just played harder.” In the loss to Florida, they got punched in the mouth and didn’t have an answer, as Florida dominated the glass, picked up every loose ball and lit up Kentucky in transition.

In other words, Florida did to Kentucky what Kentucky wants to do to everyone else.

LEXINGTON, KY - NOVEMBER 23: De'Aaron Fox #0 of the Kentucky Wildcats shoots the ball during the game against the Cleveland State Vikings at Rupp Arena on November 23, 2016 in Lexington, Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
De’Aaron Fox (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

4. This is the danger of expectations: To me, this was the biggest take away I had from reporting on Kentucky.

Let’s look at this in a vacuum. As of today, the Wildcats are 19-5 on the season. They’re sitting tied for first place in the SEC with a good shot at getting a top three seed in the NCAA tournament come Selection Sunday. They have game-changing talent all over their roster and a back court that will be outclassed by exactly zero teams.

All things considered, that’s not a bad year to have for a team that starts four freshmen and a sophomore.

But this is Kentucky, where sitting atop a power conference has people questioning whether or not the basketball team is actually good.

The bottom line is this: At some point, all teams get found out. Once a few games worth of film make it to synergy, the coaches in this profession are good enough to figure out A) what it is that you want to do and B) how to slow it down. The best of the best are able to win when their opponent knows exactly what’s coming and make their adjustments while on a winning streak.

Everyone else, including teams as good and as talented and as flawed as Kentucky, will take a few losses along the way. They’ll go through a slump, and that’s where the Wildcats are right now.

“There’s a lot of stuff going on on,” Calipari said, adding later, “[I] don’t want to shorten the rotation to five or six guys, but I will if I have to. I’d like to play eight or nine guys so they all get a chance to play, have fun, morale, all that. But you better deserve to be on that court.”

Duke dealt with this for a month before they made the decision to fully embrace playing small-ball. They’re 3-0 since the change. Kansas had their issues and they made the decision to play zone; it earned them a comeback win in Rupp Arena despite playing short-handed.

Kentucky’s 2014 team – the last Cal-coached team to start four freshmen and a sophomore, the team that entered the year with hopes of going 40-0 and entered the tournament with 10 losses, finishing six games behind SEC champs Florida – had ‘the tweak’ before making their run to the national title game.

Calipari has been talking this week about a ‘reboot’.

Will that be enough for this group to fix what ails them?

Louisville challenges NCAA over recruiting allegations

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Louisville has refuted NCAA allegations against its men’s basketball program in the wake of a federal corruption scandal, requesting that the highest-level violation be reclassified.

The university also is challenging that former coach Rick Pitino failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance in his program.

Louisville filed a 104-page response last week to the Notice Of Allegations sent to the school in May. The document stated that college sports’ governing body seeks to ignore wire fraud convictions against several people involved in the scheme – including a former Adidas executive – by suggesting they were representing its athletic interests. Louisville’s contract with the apparel maker was a standard sponsorship agreement rather than a promotional deal, the response added.

“This argument is as novel as it is wrong,” the school wrote in its response. “Even if an institution has some responsibility for the conduct of its suppliers, that responsibility plainly does not extend to acts of fraud perpetrated against the institution itself.”

Louisville also seeks to have several second-tier violations reclassified even lower. The NCAA has until Nov. 15 to respond with the school responding 15 days after before a decision is made whether the case will proceed through the traditional Committee on Infractions or Independent Accountability Review Process (IARP).

The NCAA’s Notice of Allegations states that Louisville committed a Level I violation, considered the most severe, with an improper recruiting offer and extra benefits along with several lesser violations. Those lesser violations also include Pitino failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance.

The NCAA notice completed a two-year investigation following a federal corruption probe of college basketball announced in September 2017. Louisville acknowledged its involvement in the federal investigation related to the recruitment of former player Brian Bowen II. Pitino, who’s now coaching Iona, was not named in the federal complaint and has consistently denied authorizing or having knowledge of a payment to a recruit’s family.

Louisville has previously indicated it would accept responsibility for violations it committed but would contest allegations it believed were not supported by facts. The school also noted corrective measures taken in the scandal’s immediate aftermath, such as suspending and then firing Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich.

Louisville also dismissed the NCAA’s contention that former Adidas executive James Gatto and amateur league director Merl Code represented the school while funneling illegal payments to recruits at several schools.

“The enforcement staff’s remaining allegations lack factual support and overread the relevant Bylaws,” the response stated, “and rest on the erroneous contention that the conspirators were representatives of the University’s athletics interests.

“For these reasons and others set forth, the panel should reject the enforcement staff’s dramatically overbroad theory, and classify this case as involving a Level II-Mitigated violation.”

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
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INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

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LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.